By Dan Critchlow
Arsenal u21 head coach Mehmet Ali named a much-changed side against Chelsea on Saturday. The Gunners had rotated and given chances to a few first-team players in the Premier League Cup on Wednesday, but they returned to their normal team for the derby.
Hubert Graczyk returned in goal, with James Sweet and Zane Monlouis in defence, Matt Smith and James Olayinka in midfield, and Marquinhos, Charles Sagoe Jr, and Khayon Edwards in the front three.
Only Zach Awe (centre-back), Lino Sousa (left-back), and Miguel Azeez (central midfield) started both matches.
As for Chelsea, there was one familiar face in the lineup, with Omari Hutchinson playing against Arsenal for the first time since leaving the Gunners for their London rivals.
Chelsea certainly started faster, trying to unnerve Arsenal by pressing them high up the pitch and playing with a lot of physicality.
At first, it seemed to be working, as their pressure forced Graczyk to make an acrobatic save to keep the scores level.
But Arsenal stuck to their game plan and eventually started to see results, with Smith having a couple of counter-attack shots at the other end before the Gunners began to find themselves on top.
Azeez had a shot cleared off the line after clever work from Smith and Sweet, and Marquinhos drew gasps from the crowd with an inch-perfect long ball to get Sagoe Jr one-on-one with a defender, but the winger just lost out.
Arsenal eventually made their pressure count through Olayinka, who received a lovely long ball from Sousa before curling in a shot from the edge of the box for 1-0.
Ali’s side quickly doubled their lead, with Olayinka pressing the Chelsea defence into a mistake before squaring for Edwards to finish clinically and make it 2-0.
Though Arsenal were on top, Chelsea were frantically looking for an equaliser, and they almost found one as Hutchinson got free in the box for the first time all half. Unfortunately for him, he miscontrolled the pass and the chance was gone.
Smith created two further chances for Arsenal, with Edwards skewing wide and Sagoe Jr hitting the bar, but it was Chelsea who scored next.
Charlie Webster pulled one back just before half-time to set up a very different half-time team talk for both sides at 2-1.
Just like the first, the second half started at a fast pace with Chelsea looking to put Arsenal under pressure, before the Gunners grew into the match again.
Smith had the first really good chance of the half, chipping the goalkeeper but hitting the post. Then Hutchinson curled an effort wide for Chelsea, as his frustrations grew at largely being boxed out by Arsenal.
There was a setback for Arsenal in the 77th minute, as Awe was forced off for Taylor Foran after an injury.
But shortly afterwards, Sagoe Jr killed the game with a nice finish on his weaker foot, putting the ball low and through the goalkeeper’s legs.
With a few minutes left, Ali brought on Nathan Butler-Oyedeji and Amario Cozier-Duberry for Edwards and Sagoe Jr, and the two substitutes linked up for another goal.
After a couple of nice touches, Cozier-Duberry found Butler-Oyedeji in the box, and the substitute striker was clinical with his only chance to make it 4-1.
Picking up the ball after his goal, Butler-Oyedeji enraged the Chelsea players, and there were a couple of scraps afterwards, particularly after Josh Brooking appeared to volley the ball at an Arsenal player.
4-1 Arsenal! Cozier-Duberry takes a nice touch and plays in Butler-Oyedeji, who finishes well.
Bit of a scrap afterwards leading to a yellow card, starting from the way Butler-Oyedeji picked the ball up after scoring. I caught the second half of it. pic.twitter.com/DBgZjxH8o5
— Dan Critchlow (@afcDW) August 20, 2022
Brooking and Azeez were booked for the fracas, which was the last serious action of the match.
Arsenal were much the better side overall, and the relative experience and quality of their midfield is starting to show in every game at the moment.
It was another very good performance from Azeez, Smith, and Olayinka, with Olayinka heavily involved in the goals once again.
The most encouraging thing about the match was the variety of goalscorers and assist providers, with no single player providing all of the threat.
It was also good to see Edwards and Marquinhos doing well when asked to receive long passes from the goalkeeper.
With Arsenal trying to play out from the back, they needed to switch it up and go long occasionally to keep Chelsea guessing, and Graczyk usually aimed for either Marquinhos or Edwards when he did. It worked out more often than not.
Defensively, Arsenal did well to keep Hutchinson very quiet, ensuring it wasn’t a victorious welcome back to Meadow Park for Chelsea’s summer signing.
Overall, it was a successful team performance and a deserved win to send Arsenal to the top of the league.
It was also nice to keep Arsenal’s good run of results against Chelsea’s top academy team going, after 6-1, 4-1, and 3-1 wins last season in all competitions.
Arsenal u21 lineup vs Chelsea
Graczyk, Sweet, Awe, Monlouis, Sousa, Azeez, M. Smith, Olayinka, Marquinhos, Sagoe Jr, Edwards
Foran (for Awe, 77), Butler-Oyedeji (for Edwards, 81), Cozier-Duberry (for Sagoe Jr, 86), Hillson, Bandeira
The Arsenal u21s are moving into a hectic period of fixtures, starting by travelling down to Brighton on Friday, August 26th for another Premier League 2 clash at 19:00 BST.
After that, they’ll play Cambridge United on August 30th (EFL Trophy), Blackburn Rovers on September 3rd (PL2), Feyenoord on September 6th (PL International Cup), and Fulham on September 11th (PL2). Five fixtures in 16 days.
Source: Daily Cannon.